Rocky Start to Aspel's Career
Western Mail
30 July 2002
This Is Your Life Big Red Book
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Michael Aspel

a career review

Michael Aspel

his 1980 This Is Your Life appearance

Eamonn Andrews

a brief biography

Oliver Reed


By: Rhodri Owen

WHISPER it very quietly - Michael Aspel was once a secret agent.

It is a very small chapter in the long and distinguished curriculum vitae of one of the most recognisable of British TV presenters which doesn't perhaps get the attention it deserves.

But back in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, Aspel played his own unique part in the story of Anglo-US intelligence agency relations.

It was a part written for him, in fact, by his fellow television presenter, the late John Darran, in a story performed by the pair of them live on BBC radio.

Counterspy, as their drama serial was titled, was broadcast during Children's Hour, and called upon the current host of This Is Your Life to utilise one of his lesser-known talents.

"I was part of the BBC's Repertory Company earning ten bob a week," explains Aspel over a mobile from another in a line of country estates somewhere in rural England where he is filming the BBC's Antiques Roadshow. "I think I was taken on because they wanted someone who could do a few different accents and voices and I could. It was astonishing because I went to do an audition and was on air within the week."

"John starred as Lt Colonel Greg Vaughan of British Naval Intelligence and I was James 'Rocky' Mountain of the FBI. But we also did a few character parts as well."

Equally astonishing are the dual facts that Michael Aspel is now approaching his 70th birthday, and that 2004 will mark his 50th year in broadcasting.

As it's a journey which began in Cardiff back in 1954, it is perhaps fitting that he recently received an honorary fellowship from Cardiff University.

Not that he necessarily sees it that way. "It seems a bit extreme just because I have a few links with Cardiff," he says in the affable tones which helped him become British TV's highest-paid performer in 1991. "But I'm very pleased about it. I had five very happy years there."

A Londoner, Michael Aspel first arrived in Cardiff in 1953. Fresh from his National Service, he held down a variety of jobs before his break into broadcasting a year later. At one stage he was a furniture salesman with the David Morgan department store, an advertising representative with Western Mail and Echo, a garden labourer and a pipe layer.

"My intention was to become an actor or a cartoonist," he says. "In fact I still do the odd drawing and I have been known to act - mostly stuff intended to try and get bums on seats, though that's an insult to the profession. And I've done a few pantos."

"I worked as an ad rep with Western Mail and Echo for a very short and unsuccessful time. But my heart wasn't really in it."

It was, as he says, in acting, and during his time at David Morgan's he got quite involved with the store's amateur dramatic society - until his interest in acting lost him his job.

"I was sacked by David Morgan," he recalls. "They allowed me time off for five episodes of a serial and not the sixth. I went along anyway and when I got back they said I had to choose between David Morgan's and the BBC."

"I told them I was choosing the BBC and was resigning. They said 'No you're not, because we're sacking you'."

He began doing radio continuity announcements at the BBC's Park Place studios and in 1957 moved into television.

"Then somebody said they were looking for announcers at Lime Grove in London," Aspel remembers. "It was back in those black and white days when we all shared a communal dinner suit. I started to commute for a while and then they offered me more work in London and I made the move back there."

A long list of notable broadcasting successes followed, in the shape of Crackerjack, Miss World, Ask Aspel, Family Favourites, and LWT's Six O'Clock Show.

By the early 1990s Aspel had replaced the late Eamonn Andrews as presenter of the long-running Thames hit, This Is Your Life, and was also hosting a chat show, Aspel & Co, for London Weekend Television - contracts which made him TV's biggest earner.

He returned to the BBC with This Is Your Life, leaving behind the chat show. The show had hit the headlines after a notorious appearance by a soused Oliver Reed and was, Aspel now admits, not one of his greatest successes.

"The chat show was okay but I did not enjoy it quite as much as I could have. I was not as assertive and strong with the celebrities who came on the show. I should have put them down a bit more."

"It was in the days when chat show guests did little other than answer questions about their latest venture. I could have done better." Now, of course, he also fronts Antiques Roadshow, which he took over from Hugh Scully.

Asked to choose his own personal highlight from a career of many, he answers, "I suppose the show people come up to me and ask me about more than any other is Ask Aspel, which was a very cheap and cheerful children's show on the BBC."

"There must be a whole generation of middle-aged people walking round with memories of that. It was nice, I suppose, because it was my own show."

Personal life dogged with misfortune

While Michael Aspel's career has gone from strength to strength, his personal life has been dogged with misfortune.

His first marriage, in 1957 to Brecon hairdresser's daughter Dian Black, ended in divorce. She emigrated to Australia with their son Greg, who later died of cancer.

His second marriage, to another Welsh girl, Ann, also ended in divorce.

Aspel's third wife, the actress Lizzie Power, tragically lost two premature babies, and one of their two sons, Patrick, was born with cerebral palsy. They split up after 16 years in 1994 when Aspel moved in with his mistress Irene Clark.